An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on April 4, 2010.

John 20:1-18

 
A pastor quizzed a group of preschoolers about the meaning of Easter and a precocious preschooler raised his hand politely and when called upon, he answered, “I know! That was the day Jesus became famous!”

 

Most of us realize fame is a two-headed monster. There’s good fame and then there’s the kind of fame our mommas worried we’d achieve if we didn’t “straighten up and fly right.” There’s fame that transcends any explanation of why it happened striking like lightning with no warning, no time to prepare, like winning the lottery and then discovering how much the relatives whom you don’t even like suddenly want to be in your life. Or there’s the fame of turning out well in life after such a sorry start that everyone who knew you as a child thought you’d be an utter disappointment. There’s the fame of the long, steady climb to public significance and there’s the fame of the slippery slide into depravity.

 

Last week a pastor became famous – most of you know fame for preachers is usually a sign of something amiss involving sex or ego or saying something stupid to explain what God is doing or how God is punishing someone for their sin. I don’t want to disappoint you because the Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi has become famous this past week and it started with their preacher, Bil Cornelius. They’ve advertised widely in the Corpus Christi community for their Easter services this morning, they would be hosting a gigantic give-away that includes flat-screen TV’s, skateboards, Fender guitars, furniture and get this … 15 cars!

 

Here’s the pitch on their website:  “Corpus Christi…Come on Down! YOU are the next winner of The Ultimate Giveaway! That’s right…With nearly $1 MILLION in prizes and giveaways, this Easter everyone will win something at Bay Area Fellowship! And, wait…that’s not all. Each service we’re giving away FREE FLATSCREENS, LAPTOPS and CARS!!! Be here beginning April 1 (and no, this is no April Fool’s joke). This is the real deal! No tricks, strings or fine print! Show up and let Bay Area Fellowship bless YOU this Easter!”[1]

 

If you think this is the kind of promotion where only a lucky few will win a handful of big prizes, guess again. Over the last month, the church has gathered donations for 15,000 gift bags, each with about $300 worth of free goods and services. Anyone adding all this up? Admittedly, some of the value of the gift bag comes in the form of coupons for service but none of the coupons are offered based on buying anything in order to activate the coupon and if all those coupons were included, this give-away would be $4.5 million. No matter, take away the paper value of the coupons and the total for the actual gifts still passes the $2 million mark.

 

Why are they doing it, you wonder? “We hope that (the winner is) a person who has never been in a church before, or maybe a person who is suffering from some sort of addiction or who has some sort of troubles in their life. Maybe they’re going through a divorce. What we want to do is lift these people up.”[2]

 

This isn’t the first time such offers have been used by churches to entice the non-churched community to attend Easter services. Last year, the Lakewood Church of Houston, with pastor Joel Osteen at the helm, gave away $57,000 worth of donated Left Behind video games to its children’s ministry. Another church this morning in Ohio plans to give away $500 to a member and to a guest alike. But after the other stories, that sounds like small potatoes.

 

Critics? Sure, there are plenty. Author Karen Spears Zacharias (Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide? ‘cause I need more room for my plasma TV) said she feels “like smacking Pastor Bil Cornelius upside the head with Mama’s cast iron skillet.”[3] She thinks it’s a lame-brained idea designed to celebrate Easter as something bigger and flashier than it already is. One would think rising from the dead would be a big enough idea on its own but maybe not. She believes this kind of publicity stunt “cheapens Christ, his death and his Resurrection.” What do you think?

 

Morris Ashcraft once observed that sometimes we miss out on the biblical drama because we’re so hung up on the sets and the lights and the staging. At the heart of the story is a narrative so compelling, so engaging and beyond our best hopes, it turned the world upside down. Followers who were despondent and dismayed on Friday were dramatically and irreversibly turned around by the time Pentecost arrived.

 

Easter stands alone on its own merit in the realm of Christian faith. “He is risen,” is the first message the early Christian community. From the early dawn light when Mary the Magdalene discovered the empty tomb and after summoning Simon Peter she was overwhelmed in her grief only to be greeted by the two angels with the odd question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Of course she was crying! “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she replied. The sting of death produces a grief so profound it numbs the mind to any other possibility than the one possibility that we can hold onto. But often our first explanations are empty and hesitant.

 

Barbara Brown Taylor says she spent a lot of time in the woods when she was a girl. You can see that in her writings as she’s naturally drawn to the world outdoors. At night she would line up her treasures gleaned from nature on her bed … “fat flakes of mica, buckeyes bigger than shooter marbles, blue jay feathers, bird bones and – if I was lucky – a cicada shell,” she wrote. A cicada was one of those dry brown bug bodies found on tree trunks when every 17 years the locusts come out of the ground to sing all summer before laying a new batch of eggs and dying.

 

Most of us are intrigued when we find the abandoned shell of the cicada. At first glance, it looks like the actual living insect until we look more closely and recognize it’s only an empty shell. It looks like the once-living cicada as if it was photographed in sepia tones of brown and tan. Without the actual insect inside, the brown outer crust accepts and reflects the light but it is hollow having lost the living shades of the greens and blues that reflected the presence of the cicada itself. When we find them on a tree or in the yard, they are stiff and brittle. Barbara Brown Taylor says as a young girl she would put one in her hair or attach it to her sweater and wear it to school to scare away those girls who were prettier and more popular than her as a kind of retribution for their cruelty to her for being plain and nondescript. They were horrible to look at, she says, “with their huge empty eye sockets and their six sharp little claws.”[4]

 

But when you look at them close enough, you realize you are holding a miracle of resurrection in your hand. They look dead but they are not. They look like the insect itself but in reality they’re only the shell of the original living creature. Taylor writes that even though she might find one of their shells and wore it to school, if she paid attention at night before she fell asleep, she could hear the cicada singing one of their night songs in the trees just outside her bedroom window. The slit in the back of the shell was proof positive the cicada had escaped and all that was left was the empty shell that had previously housed the living creature.

 

Mary found Jesus’ tomb and it was empty except for the neatly folded clothes he had been buried in. There was nothing inside but emptiness and absence. It’s a matter of intentional observation when we look and see nothing. There’s always “something” to look at, but when the mind takes it all in and claims there’s “nothing,” it means there was once “something.” Mary saw and her mind told her the space that once held the body of Jesus was now empty and all that was left were the clothes he was buried in.

 

Taylor goes on to claim the resurrection was the only event in Jesus’ life that was entirely between him and God. No witnesses … no one to testify what they saw or heard in the tomb because there were no witnesses. The next morning, they came in ones and twos at first, then a crowd who gathered at the tomb and wondered. But, everyone arrived after the fact. One saw two angels, two of them saw clothes; most of them saw nothing at all because they were still asleep.

 

Using the bugs of the forest, we can see that the resurrection, the empty tomb was the cicada shell, slit nicely down the back. That which had once inhabited the shell was gone. Jesus had outgrown the shell – now considered too small for his work in the world. In the end, the only evidence left for skeptics to examine are those left behind … them, and now us.

 

Frederick Buechner was already a successful novelist living in New York in his 20’s before he encountered the Holy One in a life-transforming way. Buechner was raised in affluence on the east coast and attended an elite boarding school before going to Princeton University without any noteworthy spiritual encounters. But he could not sustain his own writing success and he soon floundered and fell on harsh times. It was then that a friend invited him to start attending a church on Madison Avenue where the pulpit giant George Buttrick was the pastor.

 

Sunday after Sunday he attended drawn by the preaching of this great man. “It was not just his eloquence that kept me coming back,” he confessed. “What drew me more,” he said, “was whatever it was that his sermons came from and whatever it was in me that they touched so deeply. And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and ad-libbed it – and on such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. ‘Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness,’ Buttrick said, ‘but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place,’ Buttrick said, ‘among confession, and tears, and great laughter.’”[5]

 

The strangest thing of all in this credo of resurrection faith is how it has never been something that can be subjected to the rigors of science or rational thought. The resurrection transcends such limited ways of knowing. It all comes down to a person’s experience with the resurrected Jesus. It is a spiritual thing that transcends objective knowledge. As Buttrick said, “he is king … because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that coronation takes place among confession, and tears, and great laughter.”

 

[1] From the website for the Bay Area Fellowship of Corpus Christi TX, http://www.bayareafellowship.com/

[2] Denise Malan, “Easter eggs and more than $1M in prizes at S. Texas megachurch,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 3/27/10, http://www.caller.com/news/2010/mar/27/the-million-dollar-giveaway/?print=1

[3] Karen Spears Zacharias, “Exploiting Easter,” from her blog www.karenzach.com, 3/30/10

[4] Thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor, “Escape From the Tomb,” The Christian Century, April 1, 1998, for her insights into the metaphor of the cicada and the empty tomb

[5] Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, New York: Harper and Row, 1982, 107-8

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